Sunday, December 31, 2017

CANDIDE - REVIEW OF TORONTO OPERETTA THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre has tackled Candide, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. It is a tough piece to produce with its large cast, some difficult numbers and a fast-changing episodic structure but the result is highly commendable. 

The operetta is of course based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella which takes powerful satirical aim at the philosophy of optimism, war, the church, power, money and morality in general.

Candide (Tonatiuh Abrego) is a happy young man taught but his teacher Dr. Pangloss (Nicholas Borg) that he is living, in the words of the song, in “The Best Of All Possible Worlds” and everything happens for the good. That world comes crashing down when Candide is caught fooling around with The Baron’s (Edward Larocque) daughter Cunegonde (Vania Lisbeth Chan) and is thrown out of the castle by him.
 
Vania Lisbeth Chan, Elizabeth Beeler and Tonatiuh Abrego. Photo: Gary Beechey 
Candide, Cunegonde and Pangloss embark on an episodic journey that takes them across Europe to the New World and back. On the way they encounter, rape, murder, torture, massacres and immorality on a frightful scale.

Guillermo Silva Marin, the TOT’s General Director, gives us a fine-tuned production that moves effectively from one scene to the next and makes good use of the limited scenic resources.

Soprano Vania Lisbeth Chan does superb work as Cunegonde. She has a lovely and agile coloratura voice and gives us a perky and delightful Cunegonde. She has the tough but splendid aria “Glitter and be gay” to conquer with its high notes and flourishes and she handles it with aplomb.

Tenor Tonatiuh Abrego makes an innocent and attractive Candide with sound singing and stage presence.  Baritone Nicholas Borg plays Voltaire, Pangloss and Martin and takes advantage of displaying his vocal and acting abilities to good effect. He sings in a number of arias with other characters and does an especially good job in “Words! Words! Words!” as the pessimist Martin. Both Tonatiuh and Borg are young singers and we should be seeing much more of them in the future.
 Nicholas Borg as Pangloss, Tonatiuh Abrego as Candide and 
Patrick Bowman as Maximilian. Photo: Gary Beechey 
Soprano Elizabeth Beeler deserves credit for her verve and fine acting as The Old Lady. There are considerable demands on her vocal chords as well (“We Are Women,” “I am easily assimilated”) and she does respectable work.
There are quite a few issues with accents and enunciation as the main characters encounter people from other countries.           

The sixteen-member chorus used a number of soloists to fill its ranks and did rousing work despite some rough patches on the way.

The 13-member orchestra conducted by Derek Bate played with vigour under rough conditions. If you did not bother counting them. Their playing ability far outdid their numerical strength.

The operetta was done on pretty much a bare stage with a few props brought on as necessary. The set and lighting were designed by Silva-Marin.
           
Candide has gone through a large number of changes from the time it opened in 1956. Lillian Hellman wrote the book and Richard Wilbur did most of the lyrics for the original production with “other lyrics” by John Latouche and Dorothy Parker according to the first published version in 1957. Hellman and Bernstein also contributed lyrics. Later Hugh Wheeler wrote a new book replacing Hellman’s script and Stephen Sondheim added some lyrics.   

There are many brilliant spots in Candide but I find it difficult to love and in some cases even to warm up to the operetta. Be that as it may, I enjoyed TOT’s production.

Speaking of Toronto Operetta Theatre we can crib a phrase from the operetta and describe it as “the best operetta company in Toronto. The description applies but unfortunate TOT is also the ONLY operetta company in Toronto. (Go ahead correct me.) It is forced to perform in the small and inadequate Jane Mallett Theatre and that is no way to satisfy operetta lovers or build up an audience. Where is funding for the arts in a city that has pretentions to being a world-class cultural centre?    
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Candide by Leonard Bernstein opened on December 28, 2017 and will be performed six times until January 7, 2018 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912. www.torontooperetta.com

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A CHRISTMAS CAROL - REVIEW OF ROSS PETTY’S SPECTACLE

James Karas

Ross Petty calls his production of A Christmas Carol “the FAMILY MUSICAL with a SCROOGE LOOSE! Well, that tells only a small part of the story of his treatment or mistreatment of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of nastiness and redemption.

After a boisterous rendition of “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and “Deck the Halls” a man in a white night cap and robe appears and he is roundly and delightfully booed by the audience. Now you know where you are. A theatre audience dominated by pre-teenagers who are highly opinionated and ready to express their views.

The rambunctious show’s relationship to Dickens is described when we are in a cemetery and are shown his tombstone. He must be rolling in his grave, we are told. He may well be but no doubt he would enjoy this parody of his story.
 
 Curtain call of the cast of A Christmas Carol. Photo: Racheal McCaig 
Scrooge (Cyrus Lane) is indeed a skinflint with bags of money who mistreats people. Boo. Bob Cratchit (Eddie Glen who will also play Helen So-Generous, a cameo appearance by a famous comedian with a similar name ) is his accomplice and get your mind off Tiny Tim’s father and, while are at it, forget the mawkish sentimentality of that kid.


We have the pretty Jane (AJ Bridel) and the handsome Jack (Kyle Golemba) who will eventually reform Scrooge and kiss. A very loud “wooo” please. This Jane is a modern lady who believes in equal rights and equal pay for women and she goes on strike. Jack harbours a secret about his employer whose name is scrambled and we learn of his true identity near the end.  

Scrooge’s transformation is indicated most loudly by his offer of equal pay for his all employees. And, oh yes, mobile phones called Bumblerries play an important part in this version of the story. We support Canadian companies.

But we need a lot of broad humour. Bring in Plumbum, gaudy makeup, gaudier costume, played and overplayed to hilarious effect and popular approval by Dan Chameroy. Plumbum also plays the three Ghosts.

We need more colourful characters. Please provide us with three Ghostdusters, three Humbugs, some Zombies, a Jacob Marley from Jamaica and a crowd. Boisterous singing, video projections and lots of extraordinary colour throughout. A few commercials from BMO and Hilton Hotel using cast members are de rigueur.
 Cyrus Lane and Eddie Glen. Photo: Racheal McCaig
The story is written (adapted?) by Matt Murray and Jeremy Diamond with numerous references to current events for the adults. Someone says a few things and the comment is “that speech will be used by Melania Trump tomorrow.” If you are late for something, just tell them how easy it is to get off the Gardiner onto the Spadina ramp. Anne Coulter is not dead even if there is a tombstone for her. She is just hanging around.

Tracey Flye directs and choreographs the show and Levon Ichkhanian is the music coordinator. The outlandish and colourful costumes are designed by Dana Osborne and the sets are by Cory Sincennes.

In order to get a balanced view of the show, I brought three Associate Reviewers with me and, as usual, their views are far more cogent and relevant than mine.

Veteran Associate Emily (I’m going to be 10 in March) zeroed in on the essential point of the musical: It is about the true meaning of Christmas. We have to be nice to people. Neophyte Associate Ava, who at 8 is one minute older than her sister Hannah, added that people should not be so greedy and money is not that important. Hannah joined in the condemnation of greed and advocated decency.

They all gave the show highly favourable reviews and were struck by different moments. Ava found the scene where Plumbum (the lady with the gobs of lipstick) checks the sheets on Scrooge’s bed and wonders if he needs a diaper change, just hilarious. Hannah enjoyed Plumbum saying she went to the Danforth for a souvlaki. Guess where Hannah goes for lunch. Emily really liked Plumbum saying she watched Grease for 45 minutes while waiting.

There it is. Well-sung, well-danced, well-acted and enthusiastically received by three perceptive and infallible Associate Reviewers.     
___

A Christmas Carol by Matt Murray and Jeremy Diamond continues until December 31, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario. www.rosspetty.com


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

THE LORAX – REVIEW OF MUSICAL BASED ON DR. SEUSS STORY

James Karas

The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s engaging story about the environment, has been turned into an even more engaging, entertaining, boisterous and simply marvelous musical. It was first produced in London two years ago and is now making its North American premiere at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. It is a Christmas gift for everyone.

The Lorax, as most children may know, is a short fable about a small creature with a huge yellow mustache that speaks for the trees. A long time ago, we are told, the grass was green, the clouds were clear and Truffula Trees with their brightly coloured tufts stretched for miles and miles.
  
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Then came the greedy Once-ler who cut down the trees to make Thneed, a multi-use product that everyone wanted. Once-ler cut down all the Truffula Trees, despoiled nature and all the living things in what used to be a paradise.

David Greig adapted the story and Charlie Fink composed some wonderful songs to create a delightful piece for the theatre.

The Lorax is represented by a small puppet with a big mustache and it is handled by three puppeteers. David-Ricardo Pearce is the voice of The Lorax in addition to being a puppeteer and he is joined by Laura Caldow and Ben Thompson who do superb work.

Simon Paisley Pearce plays Once-ler who is not so much evil as a practical businessman who sees an opportunity to make money and takes advantage of it. All we need to do is look around us and we can point to any number of industries that are destroying the environment in the name of good business. (The hardwood floor manufacturers were so upset by Dr. Seuss’s story, they had their own story written as an antidote.)

Greig has expanded the short original story by adding a number of characters and Fink has helped with his songs to provide about two hours of entertainment.

The major character after Lorax and Once-ler is Small Ed played with verve and energy by Michael Ajao. There was a delay in raising the curtain for the second act and Ajao came out and seemed to improvise rhyming couplets to keep the audience entertained. His performance is just as inventive and entertaining.
 
                           Laura Caldow, David Ricardo-Pearce, Ben Thompson and Simon Paisley Day.
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Once-ler has a large family and there are inspectors, storytellers and musicians to sing and provide humour. The production directed by Max Webber, designed by Bob Howell and choreographed by Drew McOnie is colourful, fast-paced, inventive and brilliantly told.

I was accompanied by Emma, my Associate Reviewer. She is fourteen going on twenty and expressed her views very succinctly. She gave praise for the smooth transition from one scene to the next, admired the costumes and props and gave high marks to Wendy Mae Brown who sang vibrantly when she appeared in a barrister’s gown and wig. She praised David Ricardo-Pearce’s singing but was less enthusiastic about Day’s vocal ability.

After delivering the above critique in a single breath, I asked her what courses she was taking in Grade nine. Drama, she answered and added that another reason she liked The Lorax was because it was suitable for young and old. Speaking of young and old, I asked her if her mother was acting maturely by never saying “no” to her. Yes she does.

There you go. You have the word of two mature reviewers and I would rely on my Assistant and go see The Lorax.     
 _____

The Lorax, adapted by David Greig with music and lyrics by Charlie Fink from the story by Dr. Seuss will run until January 21, 2018 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Saturday, December 16, 2017

THE ILLUSIONISTS-LIVE FROM BROADWAY – REVIEW OF GRAND MAGIC SHOW AT THE PRINCESS OF WALES

Reviewed by James Karas

What do you get when you put seven illusionists on stage?

One hell of a good show.

It was so much fun, I can start with complaints. To call them illusionists may be literally accurate but it does a disservice to the show. They are damn good magicians. Illusionists gives the impression of a temporary departure from strict logic when we almost believe the unbelievable. A magician has superhuman powers and he does marvellous feats that are far more than an illusion – they are magical. And why tell us they are Live from Broadway in the title. They are magicians from around the world and I believe everything that they do is magic.

Their nicknames are simply delightful. These people are not mere creators of illusions, they are specialists. You get The Deductionist – Scotland (Colin Cloud) which I take to indicate national origin as well as superior mental agility and ability that could outwit the CIA, the FBI and the KGB (or whatever they are called now) without waterboarding.

The Unusualist (Raymond Crowe) can do many things but he can also provide a few minutes of delightful hand shadow theatre with What a Wonderful World as background.

The Eccentric (Charlie Frye) is a juggler par excellence with comic flair. Rings, balls, a stick, his hat, his vest, he handles all of them with panache, speed and comic skill. He bills himself as Charlie Frye & Company in recognition of his wife Sherry who is on stage with him and participates in the comedy. 

The Daredevil (Jonathan Goodwin) can put everyone in the Princess of Wales Theatre on the edge of their seats as he shoots arrows from a powerful crossbow while blindfolded. His target: a balloon on the head of an assistant. And he emulates Houdini in getting out of a straitjacket while hanging upside down with his clothes on fire. He must get out of the straitjacket and douse the flames before he is roasted. He can support his body on a single nail and have a cement block split in two on his stomach. Holy Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
 
Jonathan Goodwin, The Daredevil. Photo by Claudia James
The Trickster (Jeff Hobson) is to some extent the host of the evening. He is a natural comedian who can interact with the audience and evoke laughter at will. He chose an interesting audience member on opening night – a man called Mark Saunders who happens to be Toronto’s chief of police. Hobson demonstrated his ability with cards and nicked the chief’s watch. He returned the watch later but he proved his astonishing ability as a non-illusionist pickpocket.  Hobson is akin to Liberace is his outrageousness and reassures audience members that he touches that he is not a senator and there will be no Kevin Spacey stuff. An amazing performer.
 
Jeff Hobson, The Trickster - Photo by Joan Marcus
The Manipulator (An Ha Lim) can, well, manipulate cards in huge numbers with speed, dexterity, appearance and disappearance that defies belief. Where do the cards come from, where do they go, how can anything be done that quickly? After thinking about it, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it is simply magic.
  
The Grand Illusionist (Darcy Oake) is a Canadian who dispels the notion that only foreigners can do incredible non-illusory magic. He can produce white doves to fill a barn. He lights a match and a dove appears. He takes out a handkerchief and out pops a dove. And he does a disappearing act that is simply astounding.
Darcy Oakes, The Grand Illusionist - Photo by Danielle Baguley
In addition to the individual acts, the show has glitz, music, lighting and rapport with the audience that makes for an integrated theatrical evening. There is extensive use of large screens for the audience to be able to see all of the details of each performance and roving cameras to capture the interaction with the audience. A number of people from the audience are brought on stage to add credibility to the illusions created by the magicians and to add humour.

If I have given the illusion that I enjoyed The Illusionists, it is because the magicians forced me to do it by entering my mind and showing me how they can make me disappear unless I told the truth about their show.
  __________

The Illusionists – Live from Broadway by Simon Painter (Creative Producer), Neil Diamond (Director/Choreographer) and Jim Milan (Creative Director) runs until January 7, 2018 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Friday, December 15, 2017

TO ONOMA MOY EINAI EVA - REVIEW OF TEN TONE PRODUCTIONS PRESENTATION

Reviewed by James Karas

The promotion photo for To Onoma Mou Einai Eva (Το Όνομα μου Είναι Εύα) shows a beautiful woman, wearing a fur around her shoulders but with smeared red lipstick and mascara. And she is in handcuffs. There are numerous clues to the plot of the new play by George Scandalis that is now playing at the Alumnae Theatre. 

There are some notable facts about the production. It is performed in impeccable Greek by local amateur actors with varying degrees of acting experience. Scandalis also directs this thriller that is wrapped in a recital or perhaps a recital of Greek songs from the 1970’s that form the backbone of the thriller.
 
The cast and director of To Onoma Moy Einai Eva 
The play opens with a gunshot in the dark. We then meet Eva (Michalitsa Catsiliras), a beautiful woman with a fine voice who sings in a bar. She is forcefully taken from the bar to a psychiatric clinic and the story of her tragic descent into hell is told in flashbacks as she is interviewed by Martha, a straight-laced psychiatrist, played by Christina Houtris.

Eva has two friends. Panos (George Kefalas), a decent but ineffectual man who stands by her and Stella (Georgia Nazou), a sultry, cynical and sarcastic worker at the bar. Eva’s retort to most of Stella’s comments is “skase” (shat up).

Eva falls in love with Niko (Andreas Batakis), a civil engineer and the brother of the owner of the bar Kosta (John Koukouvlis), Niko is a lean, sharp-nosed and self-centered scoundrel who shows no redeeming traits but Eva falls in love with him and becomes his mistress. She claims that she is drawn by his eyes but there are precious few moments when she actually looks into them. Love is blind and we accept her feelings for hm.
 
    Michalitsa Catsiliras as Eva 
The cast of ten is rounded off with Anastasia Botos, Stavroula Karnouskou, Nancy-Athan Mylonas (in a dramatic small role) and Irene Pavlakis and giving any details about their roles runs the risk of being a plot spoiler.

The action takes place mostly in the bar where Eva sings, her dressing room and the psychiatrist’s office. A revolving set provides for easy and frequent scene changes in a play that has fully seventeen scenes for its 1 hour and 45 minute duration.

Scandalis gives us clues about the path of the plot but as it becomes a thriller and sends us off to misleading byways. Panos asks “where is the child” from the beginning and we hear the cries of a child frequently. We are given background information, we witness some violence, and we see heavy drinking and narcotics, as the flashbacks come closer and closer to the present.
The gun of the opening scene comes into play again and the play comes to its surprising and unexpected end as a thriller should.

To Onoma Moy Einai Eva is a true community theatre production. In the GTA Greek community, that is not a particularly frequent occurrence and a production at the Alumnae Theatre is an extreme exception. Ten Tone Productions has managed to harness local talent, community financial support and a full house of young and enthusiastic people for opening night.

There is good precedent for well-off citizens providing financial support for the theatre. In Ancient Athens, productions were financed by choregoi and no Greek needs a translation of that word. A good number of them stepped up to support Ten Tone Productions and they deserve a special olive wreath for their generosity.

I note that Ten Tone assiduously refused to call the play by anything but its Greek title of Το Όνομα μου Είναι Εύα although in the programme and on the company’s website most information is in English.   

In any event, Greek theatre is alive and well in Toronto even if it is for only six performances.

Εύγε.    
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Το Όνομα Μου Είναι Εύα by George Scandalis opened on December 13 and will be performed six times until December 17, 2017 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.tentoneproductions.com

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

HEISENBERG – REVIEW OF CANADIAN STAGE PRODUCTION

James Karas

British playwright Simon Stephens has woven a touching, humorous and fascinating play based on a simple idea. Two people meet in a London railway station as a result of a woman kissing a man. They seem to have nothing in common but we will find out a great deal and want to know a lot more over the eighty or so minutes of the play.

But we need to deal with the title first – Heisenberg. The play has something to do with the Uncertainty Principle which was formulated by Herr Heisenberg in 1926. If we saw Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and are devotees of the Big Bang Theory we are practically theoretical physicists. We (I am either pregnant or preparing for my next job as a king) then metaphorically reach for Wikipedia where Werner Heisenberg makes the Uncertainty Principle perfectly clear:
 David Schurmann and Carly Street. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
 It can be expressed in its simplest form as follows: One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.

Sadly, therefore, we can never figure out exactly the location of a particle (whatever that is) driving on the Don Valley Parkway, its speed or direction. If you are stopped for speeding on the DVP just remind the officer of Hesienberg’s Uncertainty Principle and demand that he shove the ticket up Highway 404.

Having a vague idea about the Uncertainty Principle is of some interest and it does force you to think about the play but it is not essential. Heisenberg is about two people.  Georgie (Carly Street) is a forty-two year old woman from New Jersey who finds herself in London. Alex (David Schurmann) is a seventy-five year old butcher in London and they are, not surprisingly very different people.

Georgie is attractive, impulsive, lively and  talkative as she reveals herself and draws Alex out. He is a reserved English gentleman, upstanding, sophisticated and a lover of music. The idea that he may be an uncultured chopper of meat disappears quickly.

In many ways this is a play about a May-December courtship but Stephens weaves the story delicately with some exquisite needlework. He avoids the obvious humour that can be used to buttress a slender plot and maintains our attention. We are interested in Georgie and Alex.

Carly Street gives a fine performance as George. She is sexually attractive but also intelligent, a bit mysterious in her approach of kissing a stranger on the back of his neck and off the wall. She is the catalyst of the relationship.

Schurmann’s performance gives us the subtle, elusive Alex who is taken aback and attracted to this strange woman. A fine-tuned performance.

The play is done on a square wooden platform with a rotating circle in the centre designed by Teresa Przybylski. The moving circle provides a fine metaphor for the world and the uncertainty, if you will, of where Georgie and Alex are at any given moment as they perform their dance of search, discovery and romance.

The whole thing is choreographed by director Matthew Jocelyn in his last season as Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage. His tenure has been ambitious with the inevitable ups and downs but his vision of moving us into new theatrical grounds has been unflinching. Only kudos for his production of Heisenberg.  As to his future whereabouts, just apply the Uncertainty Principle.
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Heisenberg by Simon Stephens in a production by Canadian Stage runs from November 28 to December 17 2017 at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ont. www.canstage.com,

Monday, December 11, 2017

INSTANT – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Erin Shields’ play Instant, now playing in The Studio of Young People’s Theatre, is billed as a timely play for teens. That is true and laudable. The play is well done, entertaining and connects with the spectrum of teens across the GTA.

The structure of the play and the production are simple and spartan. Meredith, Rosie and Jay are three teenagers who go to the same school. Meredith (Michelle Rambharose), like most youngsters, complains about being forced to take piano lessons. One day, however, she hears a fugue being played and she connects to the tune. She decides that she wants to use the tune as the basis for a song that she wants to compose.
 
Leah Fong and Michelle Rambharose in Instant. Photo Andree Lanthier
Jay (Dakota Jamal Wellman) connects to hockey and decides that he wants to be a hockey player. His dreams and his ambition, desire and hard work, combine to make him achieve his dream.

  
Meredith and Jay are not white but that is just a minor difference in skin colour. That is important and stated only subliminally.

Their friend Rosie’s (Leah Fong) father has MS and she needs to raise a great deal of money for his medical needs. She goes on social media and is enormously successful in attracting a large following.

The three are savvy and connected to social media, they have disagreements but Shields focuses on their dreams and ambitions and wants to entertain us, no doubt, but also convey lessons to the teens in the audience.

These are not the white kids of most movies and TV shows with all the angst and their middle class fights. They are not like everyone else; they are every teenager and that is one of the points of the play.

The three actors are all in their twenties but they make credible teenagers and give fine performances. Fong’s Rosie starts as a shy and awkward kid but she grows and matures, as they all do. Rambharose as Meredith is lively, enthusiastic and the type of teenager who gives early notice about her intention to succeed.  
 
Dakota Wellman in Instant. Photo: Andree Lanthier
Wellman’s Jake is just as dedicated to becoming a major league hockey player but he (Erin Shields) adds a necessary caution about violence in hockey. He is against it. The shy Rosie outstrips them both in her success on social media.

The play is done virtually on an empty stage with judicious use of some boxes and lighting. It lasts for about 45 minutes and time flies. You can do a lot with very little.

The day I saw the play The Studio was full with grade nine and ten students taking theatre at Middlefield Collegiate Institute in Markham, Ontario. It looked like every ethnic group from Southeast Asia was represented with only a few whites.

The choice of play, the quality of the production by Geordie Productions of Montreal and the superb directing by Dean Patrick Fleming were all first rate. Equally praiseworthy is YPT’s bringing in teenagers representing so many ethnic groups to see a play. If we want Stratford, Shaw and theatre in general to thrive, now is the time to groom the audience of the future.  
___________
Instant by Erin Shields opened on November 28 and will continues until December 15, 2017 at various times at The Studio, Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. East, Toronto, Ontario. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Friday, December 8, 2017

MY SON THE WAITER, A JEWISH TRAGEDY! – REVIEW OF HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy! is an enjoyable one-man show written by and starring Brad Zimmerman. He has a fine selection of one-liners, Jewish jokes, touching and humorous stories that make for an integrated ninety minutes of entertainment.

Zimmerman builds the show around autobiographical material (some of it no doubt imaginary), his relationship with his parents, growing up in New Jersey and becoming a stand-up comic.   

He tells us that in high school he was voted the one most likely to work for his father. This in a community where life begins after one gets a medical degree. He applies to three colleges and chooses the only one that accepted hm. He indeed does become a waiter for some 29 years. That provides fodder for observing the silly foibles of the way people order, taste wine and generally behave in a restaurant. When a customer asks him what he does when “you are not here” he replies that “I have other tables.” Like many of his jokes, the laugh comes from the unexpected reply to a simple question.
 The Jewish jokes, some fresh, some classic, are always hilarious. His mother (she is a mainstay of his routines) tells him that he will be well-taken care of when she goes, he asks her to give him a time frame. He brings three girls home for his mother to choose which one he should marry. She chooses the red-haired one and he asks her why she chose that one. The mother chose her because it is the one she does not like and knows that that is the one her son will marry.

After he became a stand-up comic, Zimmerman got jobs as the warm-up comedian for stars like Gabe Kaplan, Joan Rivers and George Carlin. He got recognition as the best comedian for the money. In 2005 he started working on My Son the Waiter and opened Off Broadway in 2004. He got good reviews and the show stayed for 15 months. He is now taking it on tour and Toronto, with a vibrant theatrical and Jewish community seems like an excellent pit stop.

The title is no doubt meant to be ironic but there is some truth in it. Once a Jewish son, always a Jewish son and the mother is usually a great source of material. When Zimmerman told his mother that, she asked him what will he do when she dies. But his failure to make it as a big star does give some justification for his self-assessment of his life as Jewish tragedy. When it comes to being Jewish, Zimmerman confesses to not being a conscientious practitioner of his faith he considers himself just a notch above a Muslim.
 ___________

My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy!  by Brad Zimmerman in a production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company continues until December 10, 2017 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

Thursday, November 30, 2017

OLEANNA – REVIEW OF THEATRE PENUMBRA PRODUCTION OF MAMET’S PLAY

James Karas

Donald Trump, Howard Weinstein, Roy Moore, John Conyers, Bill Cosby Al Franken, numerous armed forces and RCMP officers and countless others who dominate the daily news have one thing in common: they are powerful men who have molested women. The practice is hardly new but a large number of cases have come to light and with a slime ball as president the issue is hotly debated.

Flashback to 1991. President George Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court based on two significant qualifications: he is conservative and he is black. Anita Hill’s accusation of sexual harassment against her by Thomas surfaces and the Senate confirms him anyway. Thomas invents or at least uses the currently favourite defence: deny, deny, deny. There are times when evidence meets denial and facts collide with convictions, lies trump the truth. 

In 1992. David Mamet wrote Oleanna, an extraordinary play about sexual warfare that has not lost its power 25 years later. Theatre Penumbra gives us a powerful, indeed spellbinding, production with five-star performances by Grace Gordon as Carol and James McGowan as John.
 
James McGowan in Oleanna. Photo by Neil Silcox
The play is full of twists and traps that lead to unexpected developments as John the professor meets and then is confronted by his student Carol. The poster for the play shows half the face of each actor forming a single person separated by slit. In other words, John and Carol may seem to be completely at odds but are they almost the same? Perhaps.

John is a highly stressed man, almost at the end of his rope. He is buying a house and everything is going wrong in consummating the transaction. He is driven up the wall by his wife and the real estate agent. He has been approved for tenure, a highly sought-after promotion, but the tenure committee has not yet signed the paperwork for his promotion. He is on tenterhooks.         

Carol is in his office seeking help to pass an essential course and he seems to go out of his way to help her. She feels that she is stupid and simply does not understand his book or his views. She comes from a different socio-economic group than John.
  
He appears to make heroic attempts to help her including an offer to teach the entire course to her all over.
 
The poster for Oleanna
Carol turns everything that he said to her on its head and reports him to the tenure committee for behaviour that she characterizes as vile, manipulative and pornographic. He is not a dedicated teacher who has human problems and is trying to help a student. He is a monster. But Carols is not alone in her attack on him. She represents a group and they were represented by a lawyer at the hearing. The tenure committee believed her evidence and the allegations have become facts.

McGowan as John goes from the assured, brilliant teacher trying desperately to communicate his ideas to a student to a man at bay who slowly realizes his defeat and consequence destruction. McGowan gives us the vocal and physical changes in a man who goes from the triumph of promotion to catastrophe.

Gordon has a similar emotional and physical voyage from the pleading student to an avenging fury. It is a terrifying transformation.

Fulton pays attention to every movement and nuance in the play. Mamet’s play glories in chopped up dialogue where the speakers interrupt each other in mid-word and mid-sentence. It takes discipline and talent to achieve the speed and accuracy demanded by Mamet. Fulton has imposed discipline on delivery of dialogue and certainty in the emotional development that, I repeat, result in spellbinding performances. You leave the theatre emotionally drained and enthralled by the events it described

This is not a play about a sleazebag harassing and molesting an innocent woman. There is no evidence at all that John shows any sexual interest in Carol. Is he simply set up or is his apparently decent conduct and fervent desire to help this troubled student meant to be interpreted as the exercise of male power? I have my own opinion. You go and decide for yourself.
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Oleanna by David Mamet, in a production by Theatre Penumbra, continues until December 3, 2017 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St. East), Toronto, Ontario. http://redsandcastletheatre.com/

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MY NAME IS ASHER LEV – REVIEW OF HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE PRODUCTION


James Karas

Asher Lev is a young man living in Brooklyn who repeatedly reminds us that his name is Asher Lev and that he is a faithful Jew. He feels the need to remind us and himself of that because Asher Lev has an extraordinary gift that some people, especially his parents, consider unJewish. He is a painter.

As a child, Lev paints scenes of the Crucifixion to his mother’s shock. He can paint birds or flowers, she tells him, and reminds him what the Jews have suffered at the hands of the followers of Christ in the last two thousand years.

Thus the battle lines are drawn in this brilliant, moving and highly dramatic play about the need for an artist to express his personal vision of the world and Jewish traditions including piety and respect for one’s parents (honour thy father).
 
Jonas Chernick, Ron Lea, Sarah Orenstein. Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz
My Name Is Asher Lev is an adaptation by Aaron Posner of Chaim Potok’s novel. Jonas Chernick plays Lev as an almost meek child and young man. His head is usually slightly tilted and he looks downward. He wants to be a good Jew and show respect for his parents but he has a gift, which may be divine or demonic, for painting. The two poles are inimical and he tries desperately to explain his gift and not alienate his parents.

There are a number of other characters in the play with Roan Lea playing all the men and Sarah Orenstein playing all the women. Lea gives superb performances as Asher’s father, uncle, the artist Kahn and the Rabbi. All of these people are intelligent, perceptive and hold defensible positions. The father is highly educated and spends much time in Europe establishing yeshivas. He no tyrannical father of fiction. It is difficult to bridge the gap between educating the young to be good Jews and having a son painting the Crucifixion.

Asher’s uncle is open-minded and admires the youngster’s work. Kahn is a free-spirited Jew who admires genius and mentors Asher. The Rabbi shows deep understanding of Asher’s conflict.

Sarah Orenstein is the eternal mother who loves, cares and is in the middle of a father-son conflict. We see Orenstein as a savvy gallery owner who has nothing in common with the mother. Wonderful acting.        

The brilliant discussion of the play about art and faith are utterly absorbing because they involve a community of traditions and faith on one hand and the individual who cannot comply with those demands completely. The supreme moment of the play I think comes when Asher sees Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is an expression in marble of indescribable pain and serenity as the Virgin Mary hold her son’s body after he is taken down from the cross. Asher is overwhelmed because he does not see any doctrine or religion but only supreme art. It is a compelling moment for Asher the artist and for the audience watching the play.

Director Joel Greenberg handles the play with a sure and delicate touch. There is considerable wit in the play as well but for some reason the audience underreacted to it on the night that I saw it.

The set by Brandon Kleiman consists of an ordinary room in 1950’s Brooklyn that serves as the house of the Levs, an art gallery and Kahn’s studio with minor touches.

This is ninety minutes of riveting theatre.
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My Name Is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner in a coproduction by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Studio 180 Theatre continues until November 26, 2017 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 6R8. www.hgjewishtheatre.com

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast has been around for almost three hundred years in various forms. But Disney has generated a whole industry with its musical transformation of the tale as a cartoon on film and live on Broadway and around the world.

It is such a wonderful story one can hardly blame the Disney Corporation and others for relying on the tale for entertainment and moral instruction for young and old. Young People’s Theatre is offering the musical during November and December and if the matinee that I saw is an indication to full and enthusiastic audiences mostly of pre-teens.

The production has the virtues of a fine cast that can sing, dance, take care of comic business and get dramatic and scary as necessary. We follow the story enraptured in its telling as if we have never heard it or seen or before. But that is not all.
 
(L-R): Stewart Adam McKensy, Andrew Prashad, Emma Rudy and Celine Tsai, 
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
This is brilliant entertainment wrapped with easy-to digest morality lessons. Beauty (Celine Tsai) loves her father Maurice (Neil Foster) who is an outcast in the village; she rejects the empty-headed, egotistical and boorish Gaston (Aaron Ferguson) and she makes reading books and thinking appear attractive. She may be considered odd herself but she is a strong character who can stand up for herself. Count the number of virtues this young lady displays (if you need the fingers of only one hand, you better examine your values) and have a chat with your children

Examine the actions of the handsome Prince (Stewart Adam McKensy) who throws out an old beggar woman (Claire Rouleau) and is cursed by a spell becoming a Beast. There is a period of self-realization and transformation, a personal change that results in his  humanization. And McKensy has a marvelous voice – another virtue, no dount.

Damien Atkins as Lumiere and Andrew Prashad as Cogsworth are very funny and Mrs. Potts (Susan Henley) and Chip (Phoebe Hu) are both funny and charming.  

This is a fairy tale about change, growth, transformation and cogent lessons about tolerance, understanding and decency.

Who better to judge the quality of the production and the attendant issues of the fairy tale than my two Assistant Reviewers? Jordana (I am going to be 11 in January) and Emily, bright red lipstick applied with surgical precision, (I am going to be 10 in March).

Jordana liked and complimented the singing and as the daughter of a singer and participant in musicals herself, her opinion can hardly be gainsaid. Her assessment was that “Over all, it is a very good production” [sic]. She knew the story well enough to have drawn her own conclusions about its morality.
 
(L-R): Emma Rudy, Zorana Sadiq, Dale R. Miller, Damien Atkins, Aaron Ferguson, Claire Rouleau, 
Celine Tsai, Joel Schaefer and Jacob MacInnis, Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Asked about what she learned, Emily said tersely “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Her favourite scene was when Beauty and Beast kissed.

But Emily had second thoughts about some things. “Would you have let the old beggar woman in your house if she knocked on your door?” she asked me.

“Of course” I replied a bit too quickly.
 
“But mommy tells me not to talk to strangers and never to let anyone in our house” she observed. Ah!

The YPT production is an edited version of the Broadway musical and runs for about 85 minutes that seems to be the right amount of time before the kids start getting restless. The set by Sue LePage consists of moveable panels that enable quick and efficient scene change.

The fact that I enjoyed the production is of secondary importance. Listen to the infallible and totally reliable opinions of my Associate Reviewers and take your children to see the show.              
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Beauty and the Beast  by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics), Linda Woolverton (book) directed by Allen MacInnis, continues until Dec. 31 at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. East, Toronto, Ontario. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca


Sunday, November 19, 2017

POISON – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Poison is a play by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans that is based on the simplest of plots and consisting almost entirely on the recollections of a couple that has been separated for nine years. Yet it is a moving, elegiac play in which most of the deep emotions, the grief and the pain that it expresses form an almost invisible undercurrent. We share the expressed and especially unexpressed pain of the couple in this superbly done production of a marvellous play.

Vekemans calls the two characters of her play He and She and they meet in a cemetery in Holland for a meeting with other people about what should be done with the people buried there because their remains may be poisoning the waterbed.

There is no meeting and He and She stay to talk to each other haltingly, with numerous pauses and embarrassment. There is considerable emotional tension, anger and attempts to conceal their true feelings. But the facts do come out, slowly and judiciously controlled by the playwright and in turn by the actors.
Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra in Poison. Photo: DAHLIA KATZ  
He left her on New Year’s Eve 1999, the eve of the millennium at a precise hour and drove away. He is now living in France and went back to Holland for the meeting. Spoiler alert. The pain that joins them is the death of their son who was killed in an accident, right in front of his mother’s eyes. The pain is unbearable.

There are recriminations, attempts to understand why he left her and why she did nothing to stop him. Attempts and some success at sharing the grief and the pain, and attempts at reconciliation or at bridging the emotional gap are made but nothing really works.

Ted Dykstra plays He and Fiona Highet is She. Highet is a tall woman with expressive eyes and a voice that intones her complex emotions about her child, her separation, her anger and her loneliness. It is a beautiful performances that draws us into her beauty and agony.

Dykstra, with his tousled hair looks more like a kid than an adult. He stands accused of abandoning his wife, of not having the depth of feeling and sorrow that she feels and of moving on with his life. It is not true but he in fact has moved on with his life. He reaches out to her and she is almost ready to reach back until she is crushed by him again. He is married and expecting a child.

This beautifully moving play is done in the small playing area of the Coal Mine Theatre, in front of a bare white wall, some white plastic chairs and a water cooler designed by Patrick Lavender. Director Peter Pasyk controls the revelations and the emotional levels of the play to almost subliminal levels. The audience feels them more acutely that way.
A moving and splendid night at the theatre.              
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Poison by Lot Vekemans translated by Rina Vergano continues until December 3, 2017 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

Friday, November 17, 2017

DAUGHTER – REVIEW OF ADAM LAZARUS’ PERFORMANCE AT THEATRE CENTRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Adam Lazarus, for those who don’t know him, is a talented man of the theatre including an outstanding stand-up comic. His comedy is witty, physical, raunchy, scatological and moving. He brings all those traits to his one-man show Daughter that he wrote and co-created with Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino. Kerr directs the performance.

For Daughter, Lazarus adopts the character of a lower class Jew and starts with a description of playing with his six-year old daughter. He dances and she “dances” with him; she is clever, delightful and wonderful. Then he pushes her hard into her bed and we start with his neuroses, doubts and other incidents of his life.

He covers a lot of ground. He describes incidents like losing his virginity, drinking urine. Eating (sort of) feces, playing an injurious and mean-spirited prank on an unattractive girl, having affairs, having sex with hookers and contracting gonorrhea and protecting his daughter.

The longest segment is his description of preparing for the birth of his daughter, the endless labour and her actual birth.

Like some chic and modern parents, Adam and his wife decide to deliver their child using the system of hypno-birthing. The system as described by Lazarus uses a lot of very funny psychobabble and he as the nervous father with his camping equipment lives through it and entertains us.
 

 Adam Lazarus. Photo: John Lauener

His daughter refuses to exit and the doctors recommend Caesarian delivery. His wife starts doing yoga exercises between labour pains (which Lazarus describes quite graphically) and between her pains and fainting, the child is turned around. No need for C section.

The urine in the cup marked juice and the feces placed in a bowl using an ice cream scooper and then throwing chocolate sprinkles in top is quite hilarious.

The story of the unattractive girl who is supposed to be frightened out her wits as someone jumps out of a freezer in her basement has unpleasant consequences as she ends up in the hospital for a week with an asthma attack.

You get about seventy minutes of varied routines with his daughter as the unifying theme. It is all done on an empty stage with a stool and a couple of minor props.

Lazarus had the youthful audience in the palm of his hand throughout the performance. He could evoke a laugh by a look, a movement or a line in a way that most performers must dream about.
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Daughter, written and performed by Adam Lazarus in a coproduction by The Theatre Centre, Quip Take with Pandemic Theatre, continues until November 19, 2017 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org. 416 538-0988


Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA – REVIEW OF SOULPEPEPR PRODUCTION OF ALBEE’S PLAY

James Karas

Happy families are all alike, according to Leo Tolstoy, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Take the Gray family. At age 50, Martin is a successful architect who has won the Nobel Prize equivalent in his field and has been chosen to design The World City, a two-hundred billion project in the wheat fields of the Middle West. His world success is matched by his happy home life. He is married to Stevie who is beautiful, articulate and in short a dream wife. They are deeply in love with each other and completely faithful. They have a gay son which may or may not be an issue for them but everything about the Grays’ success is practically mythical.

But there is a flaw in the ointment. A flaw that Albee wants us to know goes beyond a passing mortal sin like infidelity or one of the frequently encountered problems in a marriage. The parenthetical subtitle of the play is “Notes towards the definition of tragedy.” Early in the play Martin refers to the Eumenides as pursuing someone relentlessly. They are the furies of vengeance in Greek tragedy who pursue most famously Orestes for the killing his father.
 

  Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann

The flaw in the ideal marriage of the Grays is that Martin is in love with a goat. Albee raises the admittedly carnal relationship to something spiritual and out of the control of Martin. If you want to be grandiloquent, it may refer to Aristotle’s idea hamartia, a fatal flaw or an error in a character that leads to a reversal of fortune and a tragic end.

Alan Dilworth directs the current Soulpepper production which has some issues but brings much of the drama out. Rquel Duffy gives a bravura performance as Stevie, Martin’s wife who understandably freaks out when he gives her a detailed description of his physical and spiritual relationship with the goat Sylvia. Stevie, always articulate, frequently witty, goes from shock to rage to avenging fury punctuated with agony at the incomprehensible treachery that she faces. It is a tremendous range for an actress to cover and Duffy does it all. From disbelief, to sarcastic remarks to a heart-wrenching howl, Duffy gives a stunning performance.
 Albert Schultz and Derek Boyes, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Albert Schultz as Martin is fine in the lighter portions of the play but he fails to rise to the tragic dimension demanded of the character. His reaction and his howl as he is destroyed by the avenging fury fails to reach the heights that we hope to see.

Derek Boyes plays Ross, the friend of the family who tells Stevie what her husband has done. Paolo Santalucia plays Billy, the Grays’ teenage son who has his own sexual problems but with his father madly in love with a goat there is not much room to examine them. Boyes and Santatlucia give good performances in their respective roles.
Dilworth does a good job in directing a difficult play but there seems to be a lack of disciplined acting in some of the scenes. Some more intonation in some scenes, a slower pace in others may be of minor nature but it would be nice to have them.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini shows a brightly lit sitting room with a couch, a coffee table and some furniture pieces that evoke the home of a well-off modern house.       
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The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee continues until November 18, 2017 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca